Dishes are a blend of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese in flavour and presentation but Lao food lacks the variety that many of the cuisines from surrounding countries offer. The cheapest and easiest way to sample Lao food is from the stalls in the markets – as long as the food is fresh and hot it will be safe to eat. Traditionally, Lao food is very spicy – Lao people will often add chillies by the fistful and use heavy seasoning – but this kick is often tempered for the western palate. Fish sauce is often used to flavour dishes.
There are several fairly good French restaurants in Vientiane, catering mainly for the diplomatic community, and Luang Prabang, which has recently seen something of a culinary revival. In touristy areas the usual traveller fare will be available, so expect to see menus offering muesli, chow mien, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, curries, pancakes and fritters. Green tea, is usually served weak and free in most restaurants, water tends to be filtered and providing it is, it will be safe to drink.
• Sticky rice (best eaten with fingers, simply roll it up to the size of a golf ball and pop in your mouth).
• Pho (white rice noodle soup, usually served with beef and/or pork although vegetarian versions are available). This is the typical food of Laos. If it’s a little plain Lao people will add in fish sauce, dried chillies etc to give it a kick.
• Laap (minced meat, fish or vegetables tossed in lime juice, garlic, onions, powdered rice and chillies, accompanied by sticky rice).
• Tam maal hung (Lao-style spicy salad of shredded papaya with lots of chilli, garlic, lime, fish sauce and palm sugar.).
• Khai phaan (weed from the Mekong River – a Luang Prabang speciality).
Lao breakfast is generally rice noodles. If noodles and meaty broth is not your thing for breakfast, French baguettes with sweet Lao coffee and khai (eggs) is possible in most places that cater to tourists, as are the ubiquitous traveller pancakes, cornflakes and takes on western cooked breakfasts. Eating out, unless at the very top restaurants, is very good value. Cappucinos and lattes are increasingly available and are often made with pasteurised milk that has travelled from Thailand.
Tipping is not typical in South East Asia generally. However, tourism has introduced the practice and now restaurant and café owners are savvy to this. It is not so much expected in Laos but anything you do leave for the staff, who’s salaries are likely to be very low, will be appreciated. If you’d like to leave a tip for good food or service, 10-12% would be a good guideline.
Lao lao (rice whisky) is popular and there are two brands available.
Beer Lao is very popular.